These villages lie a few miles to the northwest of San Cristóbal and are popular tourist attractions. For decades, these two villages have been feuding, and anyone who visits these villages must be aware of local customs before entering them. Zinacantán is said to be a somewhat “open village” while Chamula is said to be a “closed village.”
On entering Zinacantán, one becomes aware that it caters to the tourist. Shops display beautifully colored hand-woven material. When one disembarks from a vehicle in front of the square, it is necessary to obtain a three-peso pass per person to tour the village, but you are free to take pictures.
The Catholic church dominates the square, as it does in all villages. Inside the church, the tourist is confronted by a boy with an offering plate. Seated along a bench in the centre of one section are a few elders who provide judgment or advice to citizens. Before each judgment is rendered, these elders have a drink of pepsi-cola and posh (like rum). These cause the men to have “spiritual” experiences. As one looks at these men, one wonders how they are able even to think never mind render judgment on anything.
Idols of various kinds can be seen – of animals and of humans. The air is filled with the smell of burning incense. Pine needles strewn on the floor help to overcome the odor. Tourists are requested to respect the worshiping atmosphere of the people and are not permitted to take pictures in any part of the building in either village.
Across the plaza from the church is the municipal building. Men can be seen in front of the building passing away the time. In the village are both religious and civic leaders. It is possible to visit some of the houses if you ask and are prepared to pay. Red is the predominant color for clothing in Zinacantán.
The tourist will see a contrast between Zinacantán and Chamula. At the entrance to the latter village is a sign stating that the municipal building is the first place to visit. That advice should be heeded. As the visitors leave their vehicle, they are surrounded by children eager to sell something. A little boy may ask to watch your car for one or two pesos. It is a good idea to accept the offer. When you return, both you and the boy are happy. Eventually, the three-peso tourist fee is paid and the receipt is obtained. Unlike Zinacantán, someone in Chamula is likely to demand to see the receipt. Failure to produce it can be grounds for a fine or expulsion from the village. Tourists are warned not to use a camera. Punishment for not heeding the warning can result in confiscation of the camera, a fine, a jail term, or any combination of these. Black skirts and blue tops for women and black tops for men are predominant.
As one crosses the square to the market area or to the church, he may still be confronted by children. One should politely say, “No, gracias,” and walk on. They will say “After the church, after the church?” This is what they have learned from English-speaking tourists who do not want to buy. A person should be careful that a child does not give him/her an item or slip one into his/her pocket. If a child does this, he may claim that the tourist stole the item or did not pay for it. This will produce another problem.
The church is an old structure formerly owned by the Catholics. Local law will not permit any church but their own to exist in the village. Residents who become Christian are forcibly expelled, and they set up villages elsewhere. One expelled group returned fully armed and had a conflict with a few deaths before they were allowed to stay.
Inside the building becomes a vivid experience. A man with an offering plate will approach demanding to see your receipt. He usually guesses your religious affiliation and will bring the appropriate offering plate. If he guesses wrong, he will bring other plates that might please the visitor. The floor is covered with pine needles to counteract the smell of incense. All pews have been removed. Along the side of the large room can be seen numerous statues of saints, either enclosed in glass cases or not enclosed. Those not in cases are saints being punished for not having saved their former church building from being destroyed during an earthquake many years ago. The statue of John the Baptist holds a more prominent place than that of Jesus because Jesus came to John to be baptized. On the floor can be seen people setting up candles, lighting them, and praying over them. A white candle represents Mother Earth; a yellow one, the god of corn or the harvest; a red one, blood purification; and a black one is a curse on someone.
The Roman Catholic officials have compromised with the native people. In return for bringing their infants for baptism, the people are allowed to perform many of their pagan practices. The Catholic missionaries have always had trouble in completely converting the natives to their beliefs. Even Catholic tourists are very surprised with what their church has allowed to happen.
Not all Mayans are like those in these two villages. In Tenejapa and many other villages, the lives of the people fare much better.